Saturday, July 27, 2013

How to do Naples

Views of Naples from atop Castel dell'Ovo
When I was a child, I loved “Neapolitan” ice cream – the kind with chocolate, vanilla
and strawberry, separate but neatly aligned within the same carton. Having been to Naples, I finally understand the metaphor. The city, like the ice cream, features multiple flavors that taste great together.

In the past, Naples has earned a reputation ranging from “a bit of a slum”, to “criminal/mafia hangout." In recent years, this activity is considerably on the decline in most areas. The most offensive crime I observed was the occasional political statement expressed in graffiti - which, by the way, also exists in Venice - but don’t tell a Venetian I said that. As her streets and her reputation improve, the hidden treasures of Naples are increasingly revealed. Today, the tourist can still enjoy a rare treat: almost total freedom from other tourists. In early September (still considered high season in Italy) I encountered no lines or crowds – anywhere. In contrast to the mandatory cattle herding that occurs at the major attractions elsewhere, the visitor to most Naples sites is essentially free to wander at leisure.
Naples streets

Additionally, prices are a fraction of what they are in the Big Three (Rome, Venice and Florence,) and certain luxuries (using the restroom and sitting at a table, for example) are often totally free. Imagine that.

A hodge-podge of atmospheres from Roman ruin to decadent High Renaissance, and from beach to active volcano lies juxtaposed over and rippling outward from the chaotic city. Radiating from the Stazione Centrale and Piazza Girabaldi, the city center is a bustling marketplace. By mid-morning, the narrow streets are crammed with one vendor’s tent next to another peddling food, jewelry, handbags and countless other goods. Hurried pedestrians zigzag back, forth, and across like ants, biblically parting on cue to accommodate a racing Smart-Car. Or a moped.

And a moped is a family vehicle (see video.)

Generally, the Neapolitans don’t seem to have any traffic rules at all; specifically, they seem to lack a correct side of the road and a speed limit. There are sometimes traffic signals, but all they seem to do is flash yellow – which I think might be Italian for, “GET OFF THE SIDEWALK IMMEDIATELY!” It is not an exaggeration that when drivers don’t want to wait, they jerk onto the sidewalk and let the pedestrian beware. Few of the streets are labeled, but if you ask any street vendor for the name, he will probably answer with a smile. He will definitely answer in Italian, and you may or may not understand.

If you can survive the trip from the train station to your hotel, the rest is a breeze. When I arrived, I spent my first fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to cross the street without abruptly ending my Italian vacation as road kill. There was never a break in traffic, so I began watching the locals to see how they did it.

I wasn't too fond of the answer…they just blindly walked out into the street and expected the cars to screech to a halt (which, fortunately, they did.) Occasionally, a driver would lean out of the window and yell at someone. Choosing to ignore the incessant sirens in the background and my own common sense, I took a deep breath and said, “hey, when in Rome…er, Naples..." At first a bit too timid to charge into the war zone like a local, I mixed into a group of them and crossed in disguise. Nonetheless, by the end of the first day, I was confidently navigating the streets by myself. And lived to tell about it. You can also get around by bus, but be sure to stamp your bus ticket to avoid trouble with the metro cops.

As I walked through the streets, dodging mopeds as needed, a new palate of smells was there to entice me at every turn. While there is no shortage of Italian cuisine, those craving a change can follow their noses to restaurants featuring many other ethnic varieties. Few things are quite as confusing as an American tourist trying to understand an Indian immigrant speaking Italian in Neapolitan slang, but whatever you finally manage to order will probably be delicious. When in doubt, point to the menu and smile politely.

At the deli
Overall, I found that the locals in Naples were much more willing to engage in a conversation than those in The Big Three. I assume this directly relates to the fact that Naples is not as over-run by Ugly Americans and their Ugly American-isms. I found three nooks that felt like home. The first was a corner coffee shop on Piazza Garibaldi at Corso Novara, where I made it my morning ritual to have coffee at the outside tables while watching the vendors set up for the day. The adorable old man who served me was friendly and even willing to help me with my Italian, when he wasn’t too busy.

My second favorite place was a deli. When I couldn’t make up my mind about what to have for lunch, the owner just made me a sandwich of his own choosing…and it was heavenly.

The third place was a restaurant and wine bar where I ate dinner and conversed with yet another Italian grandfather type who seemed to be the owner, bartender, waiter, bus boy and cashier. He stood by my table explaining in words and movements what was being said on the TV mounted above, all the while seeing to it that my wine glass was never empty. I paid four Euro for a HUGE bottle of pretty good wine which I had no hope of finishing.    

Mount Vesuvius from Molo Beverello
Not if, but when, you need to escape from the cacophony of the city, head to the water. It’s a bit too far to walk, and if you take a taxi without knowing your way around, you run the risk of being taken for a ride figuratively as well as literally. I recommend the tram or the bus, but remember to stamp your ticket as soon as you climb aboard. At the coast is the Molo Beverello dock and beach, hugging the Gulf of Naples. Water traffic swirls in and out from the pier, headed to Capri, Ischia and Sorrento, among other destinations. Fishermen, swimmers and sunbathers pepper the shoreline. The water and the sky are brilliant blue, the air smells of sea instead of city, and there is a significant drop in decibel level. Mount Vesuvius looms overhead, a constant reminder of the fragility of this fabulous city.

Entering the seafood district
A pleasant, short walk down Il Lungomare – the waterfront – leads past the charming, semi-hidden restaurant community of Santa Lucia to the 2000 year old Castel dell’Ovo (Castle of the Egg). Admission to this castle is free. While somewhat oddly (albeit geometrically) egg-shaped, it is actually named for the legend that it was built by Virgil upon an egg of mystical powers. According to the legend, Naples will fall if the egg breaks.

I recommend an early morning visit to the imposing Castel Nuovo, a walk along Il Lungomare for a seafood and pasta lunch, and then an afternoon visit to the enchanting Castel dell’Ovo. Make this your first day in Naples, as the castle roofs are open to tourists and offer breathtaking views of the city and the water - a great way to get your bearings and melt away the stress of having just mastered crossing the street. Standing at the top of the fortresses and looking out over the bay, it is easy to understand why kings would choose to live there. The term Castel Nuovo (New Castle) is a relative one; the castle actually dates to the 13th century. Featured within are the Museo Civico and the Palentine Chapel, containing painting and sculpture from that era forward. Even the artistically challenged can appreciate some of the morbid paintings hanging in the Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory, the medieval bronze door with a cannonball still stuck in it, and the skeleton-littered dungeons you can look at while walking over them on a glass floor.
Royal Palace Gardens

Exiting Castel Nuovo through the triumphal arch, the shopaholic will want to cross Piazza Municipio to the Galleria Umberta. The mall is indoors, but has a very open feel - the ceiling is a stunning, crystalline glass archway over stone walls. While you are at the Galleria, you might want to pick up some evening wear for a night at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples’ biggest opera house - literally, across the street. On the opposite corner is the Royal Palace, but the entrance is actually around the other side in Piazza Plebiscito. The palace gardens are a park-like oasis in the city, crowded with tall shade trees, playing children and relaxing parents.

With a map and some good walking shoes, an ambitious day can be spent weaving through the historic Northeast section on a treasure hunt for art, religion and architecture. Begin at the Castel Capuano (now a courthouse) and take in the Renaissance gateway of Porta Capuana. Of course, there is the 13th century Duomo of San Gennaro. It’s not as impressive as its cousin in Florence, but it is beautiful and there also is not a line all the way across town to see it.

Another must see is the Capella Sansevero, containing Giuseppe Sammartino’s amazing “The Veiled Christ." Other sites of interest include the Baroque San Gregorio Armeno, Gothic churches San Lorenzo Maggiore and San Domenico Maggiore, Gesù Nuovo, and Santa Chiara. Be on the lookout for paintings and frescoes by Luca Giordano, one of the most prolific artists in Naples’ history. The art lover also won’t want to miss the Museo di Capodimonte, featuring magnificent works from the Farnese family collection by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and Perugino.

Some of the most spectacular day trips in Italy are best taken with Naples as a home base. A short drive leads to the bizarre Campania landscape that inspired Dante's Inferno. And a thirty minute ride on the Circumvesuviana railway takes you back in time two thousand years. In the first ten minutes, you arrive at Herculaneum, where you can visit the ruins or climb Mount Vesuvius. To get to the Pompeii ruins, remain on the same train for an additional twenty minutes. Visiting both Pompeii and Herculaneum in one day is quite a bit, and it takes a while (and usually some price negotiation with the mandatory guides) to climb Vesuvius. If you plan to do all three, I recommend taking two days. And definitely, bring a map of the ruins or take a guided tour in order to fully understand and appreciate what you are seeing.

Mount Vesuvius fresco from Pompeii, Naples Archeological Museum
If Pompeii and Herculaneum are of interest, you should plan on spending at least half a day in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Among other exhibits, the museum holds a massive collection of artifacts rescued from the lost cities, from Borghese and Farnese collection artwork, to china, to petrified loaves of bread. One of the most intriguing exhibits is from the Villa dei Papiri.

Of course, not everyone’s idea of a pleasant vacation includes paying homage to the volcanic decimation of civilization – and that’s fine. If you’d rather pamper yourself a bit, consider instead taking a day trip down the stunning coast to Sorrento or Positano, or out onto Ischia or Capri. The latter can include a truly unique experience - a breathtaking boat ride through Capri’s famous grotto azure.

Admittedly, these lovely, romantic resort areas boast well-deserved reputations as tourist traps, making them expensive and relatively crowded. If traveling by car or bus down the coast, the word “trap” may be a bit literal – the drive is one of the scariest in the world. If you have high blood pressure, heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, are an expectant mother or less than 44 inches tall, I recommend the train or a hydrofoil. And hold on to your hats and glasses.

Nonetheless, the indescribable beauty and gorgeous weather brings people back time and again to the coastline of Campania.

Each of the twenty regions of Italy takes pride in maintaining its own flavor, color and personality. Embodied in the Neapolitan, the personality of Campania is that of the genuine, unpretentious, and unapologetic Italian. Rome introduced the world to Caesar. Florence to Michelangelo. Venice to Casanova. Naples gave us pizza, spaghetti and Sofia Loren. The Big Three offer an overwhelmingly lavish feast of history, architecture, art and culture. A heaping scoop of Neapolitan is a delicious and sinful dessert.

Try to save some room.

Recommended Info:

Italian State Tourist Board                   
Italian Government Tourist Board 
Hotel Reservations and Travel Information
Circumvesuviana Railway
Sorrento Information
Ferry and Hydrofoil Information
Italian Railway

American Embassy
Via Vittorio Veneto 119° 00187 Rome, Italy
Phone: 06-4674-2382
Fax: 06-488-2672
Open Mon-Fri: 8:30-5:30

Hotel Zara
Via Firenze 81
80142 Naples
Phone: 081-287-125

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California. 


  1. The Museo Archeologico is a treasure, especially the statuary from the Terme di Caracalla in Rome. Can you imagine how grand those spas must have been?

    1. I know! My work-in-progress, the Queenmakers, spends a lot of time at the ancient European spas. Thanks for the comment Lisa!